Germany must take responsibility for its future

November 28, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The young Harvard political scientist Daniel Goldhagen went to Germany this fall to present in person his argument that the Holocaust could only have happened in Germany.

He says that German society was itself, long before Hitler, dominated by an ''eliminationist anti-Semitism,'' and that Hitler merely authorized the Germans to do what they wanted to do, and had long been waiting to do.

His book's publication in Germany brought hostile reviews from historians and from scholars specializing in the Nazi murder of the Jews, as has been the case everywhere else it has been published.

Nearly everyone was then astonished when Mr. Goldhagen proved a sensational success with the German public. Crowds turned out for all his public appearances. The last of these, in Munich, had to be switched from a theater to a concert hall with 2,500 seats because so many tickets were sold.

Deferential audiences

The audiences were respectful and even deferential, listening sympathetically to Mr. Goldhagen's argument. Even some of his harshest critics became benevolent when appearing on panels with him.

But although Mr. Goldhagen delivered his message much less harshly in person than in his book, there was something rather strange about the reception he received. It was as if he were telling his audiences something they wanted to hear, rather than making a terrible and frightening charge against German culture and civilization -- which is what his book actually does.

A part of the reason for this may simply be generational. Younger Germans undoubtedly feel that what was done 50 years ago was not done by them, and as they were not responsible for it they are perfectly willing to hear about it. They live in another Germany.

Moved by emotion

Josef Joffe (writing in the New York Review) says that Mr. Goldhagen's audiences were moved by the same emotion that the 1978 "Holocaust" television mini-drama provoked in Germany. The television programs and Mr. Goldhagen's book both attach names, faces and human detail to the abstract horror of the slaughter of the Jews -- and to the other abstract horror, that of the willing slaughterers.

Mr. Goldhagen provided, according to Mr. Joffe, a morality tale, a simple account of the evil done, who did it and why.

I think there is another explanation, a more troubling one, which is connected to contemporary Germans' problem with nationalism and nationhood. Germans even now are reluctant to use either of those words, and when they do use them are inclined to tie their meanings together, so that to speak of the national interest is regarded as a somewhat dangerous exercise, one that risks exciting a ''nationalistic'' response, or even itself to be an act of nationalism.

A writer in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently complained of this, saying that the great issues of German national interest are thus left undiscussed. Johann NTC Georg Reissmuller said that the public debate tends to rule out of consideration factors important to any nation's policy.

It has been clear for years that Germany wants to leave its foreign policy to ''Europe,'' and of course it has wanted to leave its security to NATO -- as a way of leaving it to the United States. This is why Chancellor Helmut Kohl is determined to install a European common currency and get the new Maastricht framework for European Union agreed and in place before he retires.

Mr. Kohl would then have completed a task that was begun by Germany's first great postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who joined France in launching European unification. The very purpose of European Union, as everyone understood from the start, was to provide Germany with a framework for its reconstruction that would not once again lead to an autonomous, insecure and potentially destabilizing German nation-state in the center of Europe.

But the ''Europe'' now coming into existence is not going to do away with nation-states or national interest. It will certainly modify the sovereign relationships of the European nations, but it will not provide Germany with the solution Germans want.

German civilization

It is this, I think, that lies behind the reception given Mr. Goldhagen's book. If he is right to say that factors in German civilization itself were responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, and to imply -- and this is implicit in the debate itself -- that German civilization may be capable of producing another such crime, then it follows that Germany should never again be allowed complete independence, or independent national responsibility.

That is a conclusion that may suit many Germans of the present generation. That is what the Goldhagen phenomenon would seem to suggest. His argument against the Germans is having a paradoxical result. His recital of German guilt is welcomed, at least by some Germans, as a justification for resisting any assumption of present or future responsibility for Germany.

The objection to this is that it cannot last. Sooner or later Germans have to take responsibility for their national future, even if that future is as a member of a ''Europe of Nations.'' The national problem has to be dealt with.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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